Tactics

How To Read Japanese Manga

Do you want to know how to read Japanese manga? Well then you’re in the right place. I’m going to provide you with an outline of how to go from complete beginner to reading and enjoying native Japanese comics.

There’s a lot of information in this post, and I’ve also provided links throughout it to other useful articles, so you might want to bookmark or save this page so that you can revisit it at a later date.

First I’d like to talk about why learning Japanese through reading manga is actually a great idea. Then I’ll talk about what you need to know to get started reading. Finally, I’ll provide some tips to help you get the most out of the process.

The Advantages Of Manga

There are a lot of great reasons to use manga as a tool for learning Japanese. I could probably spend the entire time talking about them, but I don’t want to get stuck on just this one section.

Because of that, I’ll limit myself to what I consider “the big three” advantages to learning a language this way.

The use of pictures.

One of the biggest difference between learning a language by reading traditional books and watching a show is that the show allows you to see what it happening.

This gives you the ability to understand the context of the situation and combine that with what people are saying in order to understand it.

Traditional books don’t have this benefit and to compensate, they have to spend a lot of words describing the situation so that the reader knows what’s going on.

But manga is a perfect blend of these two thing!

Since a lot of the story in manga is told through the panels and what you can see with your eyes, you can figure out a lot of what’s going on just by looking through it.

This actually helps you understand the meaning of words and their correct usage since you can decipher the right setting to use them in.

Something unique about Japanese is that it is a “context heavy” or “context reliant” language. That basically means people omit any and all words that aren’t necessary.

For example, it’s common for Japanese people to not say “I” or “you” when speaking to someone, because that information can be gleaned from other sources such as the situation they are in or the types of verbs the speaker is using.

That brings us to our next point.

The words are mostly dialog.


Image credit: 日本橋ヨヲコ

There are a lot of Japanese words out there. But something that’s interesting is that language can fall into different forms.

In other words, the way you say things and the specific vocabulary that you draw upon will be different when you are writing a letter, and when you are speaking to someone.

Because of this, you have to specifically study dialog and conversation if you want to be able to understand and participate in Japanese discussions.

Manga makes this easy.

Nearly all of the words and phrases that you encounter in a manga are people talking to one another, or a person talking to themselves.

That means you can gain the benefits of reading, like taking as much time as needed to look up new words, while also getting the benefit of studying conversations.

I do have to put a disclaimer here and say that only reading manga won’t make you fluent in Japanese. You also need to spend time listening to Japanese and practicing speaking.

But manga is a great place to find words, sentences, and natural conversation that you can study on your own in order to beef up your conversation potential.

One last word of warning before moving on, it would be wise to select manga that closely reflects real life situations so that the language is close to reality.

Think about picking up a manga that takes place in an office, a hospital, a school, or whatever situation you plan on being in yourself in real life.

Alright, on to the last goodie.

The material is fun.

Something that isn’t talked about a lot is the importance of having the right psychology (or mindset) when learning a new language.

One of the most important elements is to make the process enjoyable for yourself.

There are a lot of reasons why, such as your brain actually learning better in such as state, but I think that the most important thing is that people stick with fun processes.

If learning Japanese is a chore for you, then you’re more likely to skip a day when you’re not feeling like it.

On the other hand, if you genuinely enjoy reading Japanese and you find the manga you’re using interesting, you will engage with the language for longer periods of time, and more days of the week.

This equates to you becoming better in Japanese at a faster rate than if you were bored or neutral about your studying.

How To Get Started


Image credit: Benutzer:Neitram, et al.

You can actually start reading Japanese manga fairly quickly as the barrier to entry is pretty low.

All you really need to do is learn how to read hiragana and katakana and then you can get started. If you picked a manga that uses furigana, then you can look up and learn any kanji you run into along the way.

That being said, I think it’s also a good idea to go through some beginners stuff in order to learn how the language is structured and how certain concepts work (particles, respect language, word order, etc.)

This might mean you take a Japanese language class at your school, get a beginner course and go through it, or simply buy a book of Amazon that teaches the basics.

If I can make a specific recommendation, I would say to pick up Japanese The Manga Way because it teaches you all of the necessary basics and it also does so through manga panels.

What this means is that you can get started with learning Japanese from the very beginning, and you can also become familiar with unique things that appear in manga.

In other words, there are certain things that manga artists do a lot in their dialog that you don’t find in other places and this book gives those things special attention so that you can understand them right away.

Once you’ve gone through that book, the next step would be to get a beginner-friendly Japanese manga that you can start reading and learning from.

Once you’ve reached that stage, it’s really just a matter of improving you ability to understand the material.

How To Boost Comprehension

The renowned linguist Stephen Krashen has possibly done more for helping us understand the language learning process than any other person. He says that we learn languages when we understand the message being said.

So how do boost our comprehension so that we can understand the messages we find in manga? I’ve got a couple ideas that can help you.

The first one was mentioned in the previous section: get a grammar book that specializes in manga.

As it turns out, there are actually a couple different books that teach Japanese through grammar, but the one I recommended above is a fantastic resource all in one place.

The second way is to learn kanji. You can also do this through manga, but I don’t think that it’s necessary. What you really want to do is learn the meanings of kanji and become familiar with how they work.

Then you can use the manga as a form of review or reinforcement of what you’ve learned.

If you’ve chosen the right manga to read, then the readings of the kanji will all be provided in the furigana.

A really great book to use is Remembering the Kanji which helps people learn the meanings of kanji rapidly. But any good kanji book will work, as long as you keep at it.

The third thing you can do is get a copy of the English version of the manga as well.

What I would recommend you do is read through it once in English in order to really understand the conversations and the context. Then when you start reading it again in Japanese, you’ll have a much easier time with the big picture of what’s going on.

If you would rather go through the Japanese manga blind, then you can just use the English version as a backup resource for any sentence or word that you can’t seem to figure out. Pull out the English copy and see how it was translated.

Just keep in mind that it won’t be a direct translation, but rather a natural sounding one.

Read Multiple Times

Image credit: Peat Bakke

Something that I think doesn’t get enough attention is the power of re-reading material at a later date.

Perhaps most people think that it would be boring to re-read a manga, but when it comes to learning Japanese it can actually be a really powerful technique.

One reason is because you’ll understand more the second, third, and tenth time you read through it when compared to the first.

As long as you are enjoying the process, there is really no limit to how many times you should read the same volume.

That being said, I think it’s more powerful to stagger your re-reads with other material in between. Once you’ve finished a manga, try to read it again next month after you’ve filled your brain with lots of new Japanese information.

This will allow a nice grace period between reads so that when you come back, a lot of it feels new to you.

I also think it’s a good idea to write some personal notes after you finish a manga such as how much you felt you understood (30%, 50%, etc.) and any other insights that you received.

Then you can compare these notes the next time you re-read the book. Perhaps you see that your comprehension has jumped from 20% the first time to 60% the second time. That’s a huge win!

This will allow you to actually see and feel your progress with Japanese, which will fuel your motivation to continue working at it.

I’ve also noticed in my own experience that there is a high possibility that you will misunderstand a situation or a sentence when you are a beginner. Then when you read it again later on, and you’re at a higher level with Japanese, you can understand what’s really going on and notice your mistake the first time.

Things brings up something worth mentioning here. Don’t worry about understanding a manga 100% the first time you read through it.

There is a lot of information, and it will probably feel like information overload when you’re first starting out. Just focus on enjoying the process and learn what you can.

The last thing I want to mention here is that I recommend you read manga that are from same series. This will help you out a lot since you won’t have to constantly learn new character names and any special words used in a particular manga.

If you change manga a lot, you’ll end up spending a lot of time looking up each word in a dictionary. But reading from a single series will allow you to spend more time reviewing the same words instead of looking up new ones.

Getting Started

You should have a pretty good idea of what to do now. Like I mentioned before, learning Japanese through manga is a fantastic way to have fun in the language and learn a lot of useful words and phrases.

It’s not a perfect method, since it can’t help you with speaking and listening per se, but I think that most people would agree that it can be a powerful part of your language learning journey.

If you’re brand new to the language, then start learning the kana and basic Japanese grammar. Of course, I recommend a book that also specializes in teaching you manga to give you a boost for when you read the real thing.

Picking the right manga, or series or manga, is an important step as well, so be sure to get one that is both interesting for your personal tastes, and good for beginners to use.

Finally, be sure to establish the habit of reading every day and be sure to try re-reading older volumes to see how much you’re progressed and catch anything you missed the first time through.

Now that you’ve got my thoughts on the matter, I want to hear from you!

What tips and advice do you have for people who want to learn Japanese through manga? Let us all know by leaving a comment down below!

28 Comments

  • Jude

    Hi Nick,

    This article is really interesting. I learnt Japanese for a year using “boring” textbooks. 🙂 I agree that textbooks teach grammar and usually, it is not colloquial enough to be used in daily conversation. The idea of learning how to speak in a realistic way through manga is refreshing and the way to go. I wish I had done that when I was learning Japanese back then. Sadly, due to a lack of use (and practice), I have forgotten most of what I learnt.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Jude, I know what you mean. I also spent a lot of time using the recommended method of getting a good text book to learn Japanese. But there’s not too much that I can really remember from it.

      I think it’s a good idea to have one, as it can make for a really great reference source when you need to look a particular thing up, but as for actually learning how to use Japanese (just like riding a bike) there is really no substitution for just putting yourself into lots and lots of situations where you are actually using the language.

      Reading manga is one of those great situations!

      I can certainly appreciate the fact that a manga is a little too hard for most people starting out, so that’s why I think it should be used in conjunction with more intensive materials when you’re new to the game.

      But still, people who want to learn Japanese would benefit greatly by reading lots and lots of native manga every day! And there are plenty of novels that you could read instead of manga if that’s more you thing.

  • OzarkMando

    I found it very hard to stop reading this! Very interesting point of view on using more of our senses to learn Japanese (or any language for that matter)…making it much easier to take in and recall later. I will be checking back to see what else I can learn from you! I enjoyed this very much!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Glad you enjoyed it! (^_^)

      I feel that most people are really only aware of the traditional educational methods of learning a new language since we’re all pretty much familiar with taking a language class in school. 

      The most common complaint I hear about that method is that it’s boring. It actually turns a lot of people off from studying.

      On the other hand, a lot of people really wish that they could read Japanese so that they can gain access to their favorite manga as soon as it is released in Japan, and not have to wait (potentially) years for it to get translated and then released in English.

      So why not learn Japanese the same way that you want to be able to use it, right? Even though you should still use some other learning methods alongside it, I don’t see any reasons why you can’t read manga AND learn Japanese at the same time.

  • Michelle

    Hello Nick,
    All I can say is, WOW!!
    I am of Caribbean descent and I speak 4 languages of which Japanese is not one of them, however, my nephew speaks Japanese.
    I think it is brilliant that you took the time to explain Manga and how it works. I will forward this article to my nephew, am sure he will get a kick out of it. He lived in Japan for about 2 yrs.
    I am not ready yet to embark on another language, but I do like Japenese and not only the language, but the culture and the food. I have visited Japan many times.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Michelle

    • Nick Hoyt

      Dang, speaking four different languages is impressive!!! I’m sure you’ve spent plenty of time and effort to get to where you are at with each one.

      That’s pretty awesome that your nephew got to live in Japan for two years! I think it’s a really great thing when people can live abroad and see how people in other parts of the world do things differently. 

      Of course it’s always nice to then come home where everything is familiar again too!

  • Sandman

    Wow, this was an interesting find. I’ve always wanted to learn the Japanese language but it always seemed daunting and overwhelming.This seems like a technique that could work for me.
    Is there a Japanese to English dictionary you could suggest or even better a free online resource?
    I’ve bookmarked your site. Glad I ran into it.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey, there are lots of great Japanese to English dictionaries out there, and I’ve even written a post on a few different ones I own myself and that I think and pretty good.

      Read about them by clicking here!

      Towards the bottom of the post I also talk about a free online dictionary that is really awesome and I personally use everyday.

      I think you’re gonna like it!

  • Jack

    You know I heard Tim Ferriss say the same things about learning a new language. He would learn Spanish from reading the One Piece manga. This is such a good tactic since you’re learning common informal conversation with pictures as guides. As opposed to something like a Japanese class in high school and you have to start by learning the structure in a very boring way.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Haha, it is awesome that you mention Tim Ferriss because he is the exact person who I heard say that “manga teaches dialog” as opposed to most regular books that primarily use words to describe the setting and what actions are being taking by the characters.

      That’s one of the unique things about using manga to learn a language. The fact that it’s a book, but the material in is actually reflects the spoken part of the language, and not the written part (although it actually does that as well).

      Tim Ferriss is most well known for his book on business, The 4 Hour Work Week, but I actually enjoyed his next two books after that one more. One of them was on the body/health, but the other one was actually on accelerated learning techniques!

      It’s called The Four Hour Chef and it’s a fantastic book that I highly recommend for anyone who is looking to amplify their results when learning new skills. I wrote a review on it that you can check out by clicking here in case you are interested.

      Thanks!

  • Tammy

    I love the Japanese culture and this is brilliant tactic to learn the language! Thank you for such a great insight on the use of manga in my everyday life and expressions. Glad that I found your site and was directed here. Fantastic use and direction for anyone that would like to use this way for their creativity when studying.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, I’m certainly not the first person to suggest learning Japanese through manga, but you don’t really see a lot of people talking about just how great it can be to help you learn. 

      One of the really interesting things that works well together is to use the book Remember the Kanji in conjunction with manga that has furigana.

      That way you learn the meanings of kanji from RTK, and then you see the actual readings for them when they are used in a natural way in the manga. The furigana give the correct pronunciation of course. 

      In my mind, it’s the perfect one-two punch combo! But I’ve never heard anyone recommend it. Perhaps I just need to get out more, haha!

  • starduzt

    I was so impressed of finding this site, to be honest Japan is the very best country for me, why? Its culture a well disciplined citizen and that pride and integrity to themselves – I would love to find out more about learning of this Website, coz I really would love to learn the language – and that is really my purpose of my trip in next November seeing Japan for the first time and learn Nihonggo? or Niponggo? just please correct me …sayonara…

    • Nick Hoyt

      Haha, hey yeah you got it the first time with nihongo for Japanese! It’s true that Japan is one of safest countries in the entire world. It might even be #1.

      A lot of that comes from (like you said) the pride and behavior of the average citizen. The entire culture revolves around putting the group (other Japanese people) above one’s own needs, so the end result is actually a very civilized and great place.

      Have fun on your upcoming trip! And be sure to check out the beginners pages on this site to get started with learning the language! 

  • christopher

    This is a really interesting article, and I agree that Japanese is hard! My girlfriend is half Japanese, and her family has taught me a lot about the culture, and I have done my own research as well.

    When I was a kid I read Shonen Jump, especially for One Piece and Yu-Gi-Oh!. I have great respect for those who are bilingual, and in my recent trip to Australia, I met someone who is fluent in English, Korean, Japanese and Chinese.

    I agree that learning a language through visual steps along with reading and saying the language is very helpful. Images and/or movies are very strong teachers for new languages. I think the best way to learn a new language would be to utilize all mediums, short of visiting the country.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Christopher, that’s pretty cool that your girlfriend is half-Japanese and you have been able to learn it from her and her family! I bet you’ve been able to learn a lot of natural, conversational Japanese that way. 

      And you’re probably right about using all different mediums to learn a language. There’s really no need to limit your studies to just one particular approach. Changing it up will keep it from turning into a dull routine! 

  • Darcy

    This is a highly impressive and informative method!

    I love the idea of learning through reading Manga. I will be checking up on this website often. Keep up the great work!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Thanks Darcy! I think that learning Japanese through manga is a great way to make learning the language fun. It might just be me, but when I’m having fun doing something, I will stick with it even if it’s hard!

      And if you can stick with it when it comes to learning Japanese, then you are guaranteed to be successful. At that point it only becomes a matter of T-I-M-E before you master it.

      Unfortunately, most people who give up on Japanese would have realized success if they had been able to stay with it and push through the tough parts. But I can certainly understand the feelings that people experience.

      That’s why I’m always talking about methods that help people to learn Japanese in a way that is fun and fast!

  • Manasir

    Nice Nick, Bravo for the article. I always wanted to learn a foreign language which has always been Spanish but also Japanese. I’m gonna try for after seeing your post on how easy we can learn through Manga. First of all I thought the name Manga would be an app or software to learn foreign language but instead it turned out to be a method. A full filling one I would say which impressed me in full, Thanks for this excellent way of showing the importance and the learning of a foreign language made easier. Keep it up 🙂

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Manasir, yeah it’s actually pretty interesting the relationship between the Japanese language and Spanish. I find that a lot of native Spanish speakers actually really enjoy things from Japan (like Anime and Manga) like many Americans do and so they learn Japanese to enjoy it.

      In fact, the book Japanese in MangaLand (a book that teaches you Japanese through manga) was actually written by a guy who’s first language was Spanish.

      The cool thing about learning a language through manga is that you can do it with any language. It might even be easier with a non-Asian language since you won’t have to learn a new alphabet to do so.

      But I like to show people how the techniques talked about on this blog can be specifically applied to the Japanese language since that’s the one that I personally used them on.

  • Kendra

    Nick,
    I can honesty say I’ve never considered using manga or anime to learn Japanese, but you’ve offered some compelling points for it’s use. I liked how you demonstrated that textbook conversations are not very applicable in regular conversations, and that learning visually helps to retain the information. When I travel to foreign countries, I try to learn a few phrases of the language for basic communication. I’ll keep your site in mind when I make my way to Asia.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, it’s not a method that is talked about a lot or even widely used for that matter. You could use it for any language really, but of course the majority of manga comes out of Japan, so it just seems like such a natural choice for Japanese.

  • Sam

    Very cool idea of learning with manga. Learning Japanese is pretty overwhelming, I am glad to have found your site. You lay things out very well and make it easy to understand.

    Using dialog to learn is definitely better than just saying a meaningless phrase as an example.

    I enjoyed the video you had at the end there. The whole elongated line thing is kind of funny to me.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, learning Japanese dialog is definitely a great way to learn Japanese when you goal is to speak Japanese, watch Japanese anime, or read Japanese manga. 

      If you’re goal was to read Japanese literature, then perhaps you would want to take a different route. But I fine that if you can speak a language pretty well, then it’s actually a simple matter to then pick up the more formal written part.

      Vice-versa doesn’t always work as well though, since being able to speak a language is also a matter of muscle memory.

  • Max

    I heard the Chinese alphabet consists of 1000 characters compared to Americans that only have to learn 26 letters in the alphabet. Japanese and Chinese are similar so I imagine it is just as difficult to learn. It is said that their extensive alphabet system alone is the reason why they have higher IQs. Learning Japanese with Manga seem to resemble studying Spanish on Rosetta stone. I need to learn a new language someday.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Max, yeah it’s actually more like 3,000 characters that both the Chinese and Japanese use in their respective writing systems! Even though there is still more than that, the 3K mark it basically all that you would ever have to learn in order to be able to read at a native level. 

      I actually wrote on five interesting facts about Kanji in this post if you’re interested in learning more.

      You know you actually make a pretty good point on it being similar to the learning approach that Rosetta Stone uses with pictures to illustrate the meanings of the words. The main difference being that I would absolutely suggest that you look up the English meanings of the words in the manga, whereas RS doesn’t provide translations at all.

  • gian19luca91

    Simply love your article! I have always been fascinated with Japanese because of manga (Dragon Ball in particular). Without even knowing just by watching manga cartoons with English subtitles I had been learning some words in Japanese. I never gave it much thought, but now after reading your article I will definitely start putting more effort into it and see if at some point I might be able to have a simple basic conversation with some friends!
    Thank You

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey, thanks I’m glad you enjoyed it. I am also a pretty big fan of all things Dragon Ball, and Dragon Ball Z, although I never went any further than those two. I’ve heard good things about the newest one though, I believe it’s called Dragon Ball Super or something along those lines.

      And yeah, you can absolutely learn some Japanese by watching the anime with the help of some English subtitles. I actually wrote a whole post about it that you can check out by clicking the link below:

      How To Learn Japanese by Watching Anime

      I hope this helps!

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